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The Banality of Grading

As stated earlier, I am teaching undergraduate courses in English and Ethics at state schools in Utah this semester. Generally it is a rewarding experience. However, I am currently caught in an ethical dilemma of sorts.

My English job is to help these kids learn how to write good research papers. It is my responsibility to facilitate their attempts at research and to help them form good arguments. Ideally, they will learn to produce convincing arguments thanks, in part, to what I have taught them.

I have a student is experiencing or who has just experienced an LDS crisis of faith. He has been on a mission and so forth, but now doubts the truth of many of Joseph Smith's claims about himself. Having given my students the opportunity to choose their own topics of research, he has chosen to write about the theories of Jon Krakauer regarding Joseph Smith and Mormonism.

I should point out that he is the type of rhetoritician who is easily convinced by his own arguments. I feel like he is using this paper as an opportunity to convince himself that abandoning his religion is the right thing for him to do. It is my responsibility to help him find the best way to present his arguments so that they will be persuasive. I have to make sure that his research is as thorough as possible and that his presentation is ultimately rational. But, if I do my job, I am contributing to his journey of "apostasy" (ie. falling away). Isn't that bad for me to do?

I cannot express my discomfort to him, because that could (and probably would) be perceived as an attempt to influence him religiously. Besides, it isn't my responsibility. There is, I am sure, a church support group somewhere in his life that is trying to convince him of the error of his ways. I have to do the job that I was hired to do. But, I feel that I may not be doing the morally correct thing here from an LDS perspective. I realize that his belief is ultimately a matter of his choice, but am I wrong for possibly facilitating this choice? Aren't I a lousy instructor if I don't facilitate his choice?

Obviously, there are legal and social mores that prevent me from telling this student that he is wrong to engage in this line of inquiry, if he is doing it to validate his choice. I just feel a bit like a spiritual Eichmann, giving him the rope necessary to hang himself.

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Dave said ... (October 29, 2004 1:06 AM) 

John C, I don't think you'd be out of line to chat with your student. LDS students are always pleased to encounter LDS faculty. In any case, his knowing you are reading his essay as more than just an English instructor probably helps him undertake the inquiry more seriously and with more balance.

Krakauer is a funny place to go for the topic, you could certainly direct him to better JS sources. Remini's recent JS biography is thoroughly neutral, and Donna Hill's biography, while 30 years old, is still the best available treatment. Both are generally available through public libraries.


Greg said ... (October 29, 2004 1:25 AM) 

Dave's right. Undoubtedly you are in a tough spot, but there is no reason you shouldn't suggest (or even insist... for the sake of "fair, balanced," etc.) that you student examine other literature or viewpoints on the topic. Eugene England pops to mind. An faithful man not beyond examining the roots of his own testimony, including JS. It's possible to question and remain faithful. Open his mind to the possibility, at least, that through examination his crisis might resolve itself in completely surprising ways.


The Source said ... (October 29, 2004 9:51 AM) 

You mormons are cracking me up! Don't you think it is a little pathetic that you have to discourage your student from research in order for him to continue to believe your teachings? I think that should be a cause for some reflection on your part. If you truly believe what you preach, then depend on that truth to find it's way in this circumstance. It is not YOUR place (legally or ethically) to try to influence him. He is on this journey for a reason.

The Source


Ronan said ... (October 29, 2004 9:55 AM) 

Ah, Mormon guilt!


Anonymous said ... (October 29, 2004 11:33 AM) 

I don't think that it's a bad thing to try and influence him. He's being influenced by enough bad stuff. If you honestly care about him and do right by him then I think he'll see that.

Jon Krauker's book on the Mormons is so out of line...he characterizes all religion as the catalyst for hate and violence.

go to Jeff Lindsay's website and he has alot of cool comments and articles on Joseph Smith that I think it's worthwhile for you and your student to see.

Sincerely, Josh


Anonymous said ... (October 29, 2004 1:14 PM) 

I think that as a teacher it is really not your place to bring your religious convictions into the discussion. Besides, he probably won't listen to you anyway and likely will see this thing through according to his own way of thinking. One way you could influence him would be to suggest other sources to him so that he can get a view of how other scholars have portrayed Joseph Smith. But please don't refer him to any overly apologetic resources, those would be useless in this kind of setting, and might turn him off more.


Dave said ... (October 29, 2004 4:12 PM) 

The last place I would send an inquiring LDS student is Mormon apologetics, and pointing out additional sources (Remini, Donna Hill, Eugene England) seems like the exact opposite of discouraging research.

Nor is this a Mormon problem. University biology insturctors regularly encounter Christian undergrads who for the first time confront an unbiased presentation of evolution. Politically correct students would likewise be challenged if alternative viewpoints on history and society were part of the curriculum. Such students should be encouraged to read broadly and think clearly, and highlighting reliable and balanced sources is a valuable and "neutral" role that a prof can play.

In fact, the worst academic offenders of the neutrality principal are philosophy profs who think it's their calling in life to trash the traditional beliefs of every kid who's not a nihilist or an anarchist.


John C. said ... (October 29, 2004 5:01 PM) 

Thanks for the comments so far. All have been helpful. I feel like I need to clarify one aspect, however.

First of all, this student approached me about this topic after asking me if I was LDS. He then asked if it was okay for him to explore this topic in my class. I feel like it is my duty to encourage him to go where his interests lie, so I told him that it was fine. But clearly, he is worried about my reaction to his eventual paper. I worry that this means that he expects me to give him a bad grade if I disagree with his conclusions.

If he writes a good paper, I will give him a good grade. For that matter, I want him to write a good paper. My job is to help him write a good paper. I have already talked to him about using a wide variety of sources and approaches and he seems open to the idea. So, I am not worried about him using only sources from a particular spectrum. But, because we have talked about this a bit already, I know that he is sceptical of the claims of Joseph Smith and that Krakauer's theories about religion (and Mormonism in general) appeal to him. That is why he is writing the paper in the first place. So, if he adopts a position, as I expect him to do, that there are better motivations for Joseph Smith's activities than divine revelation AND if he does a good job of explaining and defending his position, he will get an A.

The problem is that I sense that he is using this paper as a means to test his newfound theories of Joseph Smith. If he does a good job, will he see this as a valiadation of his attempts to argue rationally (what I intend by the grade) or will he see the A as a justification indicating that his questions regarding Joseph Smith are valid and rational (what I think he will take from the grade)?

Setting aside the problem of what happens if he does a good job, what if he does a bad job? Will he think that a bad grade is driven by a fundamental disagreement I may have with his conclusions?

I suppose that this only matters to me because I am Mormon (some of the Source's criticism rings true). Not in the sense that I want or need this student to validate my beliefs by accepting them, but rather in that am I fulfilling my duty as a fellow Mormon (or Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) if I provide him, however inadvertantly, with the justification for his actions that he is looking for?


Clark Goble said ... (October 30, 2004 6:29 PM) 

Dave, while a lot of apologetics is bad and a lot more is at best providing explanations for why one can rationally be a believer with the evidence, I think there is a fair bit that is quite good. The problem is in sorting that out. However I do agree that bad apologetics will quickly turn the intelligent investigator off worse than no answer at all.

Regarding the student, I'm not sure how one should go about it. It really depends upon your relationship with the student. It sounds like you are fearful of seeming to push your religion on him. It's understandable. Thus I'd probably not volunteer too much. However if he asks, presumably bear testimony from some of the personal experiences you have. Beyond that I suppose it really rests upon the type of questions he asks.


Anonymous said ... (October 30, 2004 7:29 PM) 

This is a delicate situation, to be sure. Ultimately, though, this student's beliefs are his to research, his to hold, and his to defend. As a teacher, you can only encourage him to look at both sides of the argument in an effort to be persuasive in his rhetoric. You are not the one giving him the doubts to research - he already had those. You are not suggesting he belongs to a cult, or something, and I bet if you explain your position as a teacher, and your position as a fellow member of the church, the student will understand and even respect your position. You will be doing your job to teach him to think critically and decide for himself. Unfortunately, this is the antithesis of most religious dogma.
I disagree with the claim that Jon Krakaur "characterizes all religion as the catalyst for hate and violence". He merely poses some provocative questions, like where does revelation end and insanity begin (in the case of Ron Lafferty)? He also asks how people of God can do such heinous things in His name (as in the case of the Mountain Meadows Massacr). These are questions I've asked myself for years.
I commend the student for researching his questions and being willing to consider an alternative viewpoint from the one he was taught to believe. Perhaps this will even strengthen his testimony. But.... what if this student's argument is so good, it convinces you to leave the church?


yabadabadoo helper said ... (October 30, 2004 10:52 PM) 

Intellectual honesty is part and parcel of faith. If you discourage him from pursuing difficult questions, you'll create the impression that faithful people do not honestly confront these issues. Set an example as a faithful member who does, and tell him that you're open to discussing any of his concerns when he's done with the paper.

That said, here's my opinion about sources: Krakauer's book is no starting point for a rigorous research paper. Krakauer misrepresents the LDS church nearly every time he mentions it, and you should lose no opportunity to say so. (Here's a 5 page review that I wrote to illustrates this, if you're interested--or even if you're not, I'd love for you to grade it). Point him to better sources, whether they're neutral or not. Don't touch apologetics with a ten foot poll.


Rob said ... (November 03, 2004 4:25 PM) 

Tell him he has to write a paper that would pass the Ensign editorial board, or you'll flunk his butt right back to junior high.



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